New York

John O’Keefe

Second Stage Theater

John O’Keefe’s Shimmer, 1989, a monologue about life in a juvenile home in the mid ’50s, is a singular concoction. It is as sociologically acerbic as Eric Bogosian’s sketches yet with an affecting autobiographical edge; as emotionally revealing as Spalding Gray’s performances yet more complexly dramatized. O’Keefe plays several roles and performs his script with an athletic exuberance. The piece filters its Huckleberry Finn theme of escape from oppressive civilization and its Beat-era humor through a fine mesh of haunting magical realism. Like its title, which refers to a homemade philosophy in which the natural world resonates with portentous import at certain epiphanic moments, the performance vibrates with a gossamer yet palpable mysticism. Like the best dreams, Shimmer limns the shadowy sense of life moving beneath the surface of consciousness.

The motifs of the tale itself are descended from Oliver Twist by way of Catcher in the Rye. Archetypal story elements—viciously-run detention farm for delinquents, an intricate pecking order among young boys, sadistic teachers and supervisors, exhilarating moments of male bonding, and hopes of escape—are edited into an exemplary narrative. While sketching a fully rounded, almost epic portrait of a particular time and place in a briskly-paced 70 minutes, O’Keefe’s individual vignettes, separated by blackouts, dovetail neatly to keep the overall arc—the effort to experience "shimmer”—always present and moving forward.

The piece is also animated by O’Keefe’s “poor theater” performance. Wearing only a white T-shirt and worn jeans, O’Keefe inhabits his text, yet distances himself through hieratic physical gestures that claim an equal dramatic importance with the language. In one tour de force skit, O’Keefe achieves something like theatrical polyphony when, as two characters, he plays a game of pitch and catch with himself while discussing the intricacies of swearing.

Such bare-bones performance is dramatically affected by its surroundings. Presented earlier in the year in P.S. !22’s former elementary school building on the Lower East Side, Shimmer played like a Cuckoo’s Nest-style documentary/ fable, a counterculture allegory about relentlessly malevolent institutions and the necessity to escape society for psychic survival. The barely altered classroom context of P.S. 122 served as a literal subtextual background for the story’s orphanage setting—the space’s funkiness lent the tale an aura of gritty authenticity. In Second Stage Theater’s Upper West Side, traditional off-Broadway staging, the evocative power of O’Keefe’s text and performance were, paradoxically, more evident. Using the theater’s facilities for a more complex and effective lighting scheme, and working against the proscenium stage frame, O’Keefe etched his tale of adolescent pain and joy in much sharper, although more figurative, relief. Shimmer adds a new dimension—a muscular lyricism—to the seemingly inexhaustible, stripped-down form of the monologue.

John Howell